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05.05.06 Guest Editor: Mark Flanigan
"Mama Never Called Me No Nigger"

     There are all sorts of construction signs, but no apparent construction as I walk alongside her. She’s talking about her new roof, saying something along the lines of “I don’t know how them Mexicans got it done when all they ever seemed to do was stand around.”
     Shut up, I tell her.
     Once back home, I have work to do my damn self. Turns out I’m guest-editing a certain website and I need to find, among other things, a film to feature. My guide had led me to the Internet Archive at archive.org, where thousands of films are available for download thanks to being in the public domain. Talk radio’s playing in the background—something about an upcoming strike—so I keyword ‘strike’ and am delivered to the utterly beautiful “Salt Of The Earth (1954),” a feature-length independent film produced by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers which tells the true story of one partaken by Mexican-American workers living in a small, company-owned town. I’m surprised even further when, after a court order has been issued that prevents the men from picketing and thus opening up the possibility for them to be replaced with ‘scabs,’ the women take their place in line. Unsurprisingly, the film was made by the considerable pool of talent created by the
Hollywood Blacklist.
     There’s a newspaper at my feet all the while. LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES AGREE: Immigration Reform Necessary, one headline reads. So many roofs in need of repair....
     I type ‘Capitalism,’ and as a result find a charming cartoon titled “Make Mine Freedom (1948).” In it a snake-oil salesman speaks to a group of men—a worker, a manufacturer, a farmer and a politician, saying that his bottle of “Ism will cure any ailment of the body politic, will make the weather even perfect everyday.” Understandably, the assembly is intrigued—enough so to get them to willingly sign away their freedom and that of their children’s—until another on-looker, John Q. Public, convinces each to try Dr. Utopia’s tonic. Subsequently, they are plunged into their respective nightmares: the worker becomes clenched in the State’s iron fist, for instance, while the politician’s head becomes replaced by a phonograph that states “Everything is fine” repeatedly.
     Like most films on the archive, the context provided is equally illuminating. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, founded by the former chairman of General Motors and anxious to spread the news about capital-ism, funded the “staunchly anti-Communist Harding College to produce nine short cartoons which would portray simple economic truths about the American system of production in an interesting and entertaining manner.” But, as this anonymous writer points out, although the film purports to be a relaxed, humorous explanation of how our economy works, it employs a ‘stealth’ strategy that sought to discredit anti-capitalist ideas. “Apparently,” he later points out wryly, “John Q. Public didn’t believe in the First Amendment” as the good doctor is chased away by a barrage of his own bottles.
     I keyword ‘Cold War’ next and notice a film titled “Don’t Be A Sucker (1947).” Not wanting to be one any longer, I can’t help but watch. Made by the U.S. War Department no less, I’m surprised to hear it preach tolerance and inclusion. Was this film, with its Hungarian-American character proclaiming “America is minorities, and that means you and me,” the product of a different, more innocent time? Of course not, the last frame proves, for it reads “THIS FILM WILL NOT BE SHOWN TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM THE WAR DEPARTMENT.”
As one reviewer put it, the film was merely made to put a stop to racism in the military and its message should only be given out on a need-to-know basis.
     I’m feeling dirty now, so I type in ‘Bush’ next. And for the same reason that most comics probably voted for him, I’m glad in some sense of the word that he’s still there. For it takes me to where else but “Despotism,” a 1946 Encyclopedia Britannica Film that illustrates the thesis that all communities can be ranged on a scale running from democracy to despotism, and offers a number of indicators by which the degree of democracy or despotism can be measured....
     Restricted Respect? Check.
     Concentrated Power? Check.
     Slanted Economic Distribution? Well, let me check my pockets. America two dollars and twentyseven cents April 17, 2006....
     Strict control of the agencies of communication? Not here, online, not yet....
     It’s anniversary time in Cincinnati, so ‘Race Relations’ is up next. Wherein I’m transported to “Detroit: City on the Move (1965),” which in that year was named by the U.S. as their hopeful bid for the 1968 Olympic games. The film is a white-washed attempt to paint the city in a favorable light; despite the fact that 300,000 people less lived in Detroit in 1965 than in 1950, despite the fact that it’s true ethnic make-up is clearly obscured in the promo. The city’s desperation is all but palpable in this and its follow-up, “The Detroit You Never Met,” made in response to certain allegations that it was no longer solvent and couldn’t deliver the Olympics.
     In 1965, despite the pictures, African-Americans made up 35% of Detroit’s population.
     In 1966, gold-medalist Muhammad Ali was stripped of both his boxing title and license after being convicted of draft evasion. Filing as a conscientious objector on grounds of religion, he famously stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong... No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”
     In 1967, after five days of rioting, 43 Detroiters lay dead, 1189 were injured, and over 7000 arrests had been made.
     In 1968, the Swede Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall became the first-ever Olympic drug disqualification, having tested positive for excessive alcohol.... in Mexico City.
     And in 2006, I’m walking past one new stadium on my way to the other, past the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which has recently disclosed budgetary shortfalls and is asking for city assistance. The guy next to me thumbs his nose at its edifice, says “Make a prison out of it, I’m sure they’d come then” as we pass yet another construction sign with no nearby construction.
     The threads, however frayed, are there nonetheless. As is the question posed long ago: Can we destroy the Master’s house with his own tools?
     This while the answer seems all too slow in coming....

Guest Editor
Mark Flanigan
April/May, 2006



 

 






semantikon home semantikon editorial feature literature feature visual art cinema lost and found feature columns semantikon electronic library learn about site features share your works with semantikon community need help? promote, donate, volunteer your privacy matters